Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

19.3.14

A shorter history of table decoration.

Trends come and go, some faster than others. In some cases, keep the original article and you won't have to buy another every time it comes back into fashion. You'll save a fortune. Take table decoration.

There are three types of people in the world. People who dine on tablecloths, those who use placemats, and others who eat from plates set on the naked table top.

I have been each of these at various times, but returned to the first category thanks to my collection of retro tablecloths. The collection includes cloths of Irish linen that are virtually indestructible. Tablecloths went out of fashion somewhere around 1970; the only ones you could buy subsequent to that were horrible cheap imports that pilled when you looked at them, or bunched up exasperatingly when you moved a plate. They also lost several shades of colour after one hour on the clothesline after the first wash. By contrast, the earlier ones were so heavy you had to starch them and the colours in the retro-patterned checked ones are as fast as the day they first graced a table in, for example, 1952. My mother used to have a box of starch under the sink to iron tablecloths the size of tennis courts. It was a big family.

Then there are placemats. I first had placemats decades ago, because I got married. People never buy placemats, they are only given them. My first placemats had a lime green floral pattern with a matching border. It was vile, but in the '70s, entire dinner parties were accented in lime green; kitchen cabinets, holland blinds, vases, sofas, lamp shades, crockery, you name it. Even the car you arrived in was lime green*.

Later placemat mistakes included cork ones topped with images of English towns; brass ones with etched images of knights; ones made out of seagrass which caught fire when people dropped cigarettes on them (yes, people actually smoked at 1970s dinner parties, but that was the least of it, although smoking would probably most scandalise today's politically correct society). You could fold the fabric mats and store them with the tea towels, but the rigid ones had to be stacked in a cupboard or sandwiched between books on the bookshelves. I also had some of those plastic ones that had a glossy wipe-clean surface and rounded edges and bore typical 1980s designs in white, green and black. They were dreadful, their only advantage being that they drew your attention from what was on the plate, such as chicken with apricots showered with toasted almonds. Now, wait a minute. I've only been married twice. So where did all these placemats come from? Eventually I threw the lot out. Even the opportunity shop didn't want them, so they went to landfill, awaiting future archaeologists who will regard them as some form of primitive art.

You can laugh at the 1970s and 1980s, but things got worse. In recent times, decorator magazines have encouraged such table top banalities as five large timber pears in a row, long dead sticks in glass tumblers, autumn leaves in a shallow bowl, and candles perched in large flat river pebbles in wide bowls.

We might have set fire to seagrass placemats, but those ridiculous dead sticks could put an eye out. And you can do a lot of damage with river pebbles after several gin and tonics.

*

In Australia, St Patrick’s Day is one of the occasions better suited to the climate, occurring as it does in our autumn. While Christmas in Australia - the height of summer - is totally unsuited to traditional fare, St Patrick’s Day falls around the time when the aroma of fragrant stews is welcome after a summer of unbearable heatwaves. This year, we metaphorically crossed the Irish Sea to Wales for a variation on the traditional Irish stew.

Lamb and leek stew.

Trim 4 rashers of bacon and 4 forequarter chops. Fry the bacon in oil or dripping in a deep heavy-based pan until almost crisp. Remove. Brown the chops in the same pan. Remove.

Peel 4 large potatoes and 3 carrots; cut the potatoes into thick slices and the carrots into diagonals. Chop a leek into thin rounds, rinsing if necessary. Chop an onion into thick rounds.

Line the pan with a layer each of potato, carrot, leek and onion. Add white pepper and half the bacon. Arrange the chops on top.

Repeat with more potato, carrot, leek and onion and the rest of the bacon. Add a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme and add enough beef stock to just cover the vegetables. Cover the pan, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour or longer.

Served on the retro green check tablecloth circa 1959, with chopped parsley and a glass of stout, not too cold.

*Thanks to Joshua of the Queensland Falcon GT Owners' Club for the image of his 1972 Falcon 500 GT in Lime Glaze.

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